Keeping young, ambitious and talented people in Alberta

There’s already a strong engineering, finance and transportation capability in the province. We need to build on that in the new economy

Mike RobinsonA new study related to abandoned coal mining in the United Kingdom and the movement of displaced workers offers insight for Albertans.

Not many of us read the online peer reviewed academic journal Nature Human Behaviour. That’s why occasionally perusing the back pages of The Economist makes sense.

The Oct. 26, 2019, Economist reviews an article from Nature Human Behaviour that presents new data on dysgenics – the study of factors producing the accumulation and perpetuation of disadvantageous genes in a particular population or species.

The study was based on an analysis of almost 450,000 Britons who volunteered their DNA and associated personal data in the U.K. Biobank.

The study authors, Abdel Abdellaoui (University of Amsterdam) and Peter Visscher (University of Queensland), consider how genetic patterns associated with certain biological, medical and behavioural traits cluster and change with population flows. Like when a coal mine closes and workers have to decide to stay or move in search of new employment.

Abdellaoui and Visscher considered 33 traits, and as part of their study sought evidence of geographical clustering related to places in DNA (called single-nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPS) where an individual genetic letter routinely varies from person to person.

They discovered that for the population under study, the strongest geographic clusters were SNPS for educational attainment, characterized as the number of years individuals spent at school and college. They also pinpointed SNPS clusters lowering educational attainment, particularly in former coal-mining areas.

The distinguishing factor was whether one stayed in a former coal mining area or moved in search of new options. Basically, low-educational attainment folks stayed; high-educational attainment folks moved.

The period covered by the British coal industry ranges from the late 18th century into the 1960s, when coal mines began to close in large numbers and the high-employment industry basically died. British coal mine employment peaked in 1920 with 1,191,000 miners. In 2015, only about 2,000 British workers made their living mining coal.

The study illustrates a reality for abandoned coal-mining areas that Albertans might wish to consider carefully.

The Britons in the study who had more educational attainment-promoting SNPS tended to leave economically depressed areas. These migrants also shared more health promoting outcomes. According to The Economist piece, “The healthy, in other words, depart. The less healthy remain.”

Just how willing are politicians to confront this finding, especially when the study concludes that this combination of factors is actually written in peoples’ DNA?

Presumably it’s in Alberta’s interests to provide the best educational options possible to induce bright, healthy and ambitious citizens to remain in Alberta for their studies, and apply their educational skills at home upon graduation.

Given that the oil and gas industry is far more technical and scientifically complex than 19th century British open-pit or deep coal mining, there’s already a strong engineering, finance and transportation capability in the sector. The best argument is to retain, enhance and repurpose these skills for the future.

The repurposing should be in sectors that have the most potential to contribute to the economy in the long term. The alternative energy sector provides a strong opportunity with growing national and international markets. Why not act on this opportunity?

Instead of cutting education budgets and funding old economy “war rooms,” the provincial government should be targeting and prioritizing its educational investments.

Alberta also has a growing capacity to attract strong new residents as its reputation as a key province in a ‘lifeboat country’ becomes better known. As Alberta’s northern agricultural zones receive more heat, parts of the boreal forest may more closely resemble a bread basket. Job opportunities and migration should follow.

It’s time to plan for these climate and immigration shifts before they occur.

There’s no reason for Albertans not to benefit from these changes, too. But in order to do so, they need to know that these options exist.

Clearly, young, healthy, ambitious people are aware of the downfalls of staying home in a declining economy. And yet these are the very people we need to retain to create opportunities, take entrepreneurial risks and build the next economy in Alberta.

Surely this is where a wise government would concentrate its efforts.

Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. He has also chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.

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